Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Medieval Exhibitions in London (British Museum and Henry VIII/British Library)

Back from London, where I took things slowly.

While there I look for the first time at the new medieval rooms at
British Museum - and to be frank I was not too impressed. I also saw the British Library Henry VIII exhibition.

The new medieval room has some good items, but considering how many interesting medieval buildings there are in England (and the UK generally) this new room at the British Museum does not measure up.

Certainly compared to say the Cloisters in New York or the Musee de Cluny in Paris it is fairly sparse. More than that, I doubt general visitors to the British Museum, with its stunning ancient Greek, Assyrian, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities will be especially impressed by the medieval exhibits.

But it's also the case that items are not presented very well. The BM cannot compete with the architectural possibilities of the Cloisters or Musee de Cluny, but surely it can do more than shove various collections of treasure trove into one case, with few contextual explanations. [Even the Sutton Hoo trove, which is not part of the new room, just sits there dully in a glass case.]

Apart from individual items, the overall labelling is old fashioned and uninteresting. For a visitor to the BM "Anglo-Saxons" simply replaced "Celts" and no explanation is given that DNA evidence simply does not a) support a connection of Insular "Celts" with the middle European La Tene culture, nor that b) "Anglo-Saxons" simply replaced the post-Roman inhabitants. Even if these issues may not be major issues for the waves of non-UK visitors to the BM, surely subjects such as this ("where the modern English came from") should be capable of forming interesting exhibits for the many UK visitors.

Meanwhile, the labels say that England in the middle ages was "feudal." Oy.

As to Henry VIII - he is of course part of the problem: so much English medieval art was destroyed by the monster and his successors that there is so much less to show than in France or Italy. David Starkey, the curator of the British Library exhibition, is desperate to show that the documents and objects he presents ( which are indeed interesting) show a way "into the mind of the King".

The problem is that one ends up with the same impression as before: Henry was an obsessive maniac, whose efforts to have a male heir did nothing other than destroy damn near the totality (OK, 95%) of medieval art in England, all for nought as his male heir was useless, his doubtfully legitimate daughter turned into a great queen, and it was the heirs of his sister Margaret who came to power in the end in any case.

He is quite the nastiest king in English history.

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